Shakespeare on the Global Stage: Performance and Festivity in the Olympic Year, edited by Paul Prescott and Erin Sullivan, has just been published by Bloomsbury’s Arden Shakespeare series. The collection takes a range of perspectives on Shakespearean performance in 2012, emerging from the Year of Shakespeare project on the World Shakespeare Festival. I am pleased to have contributed a co-written essay, with Dr Peter Kirwan (Uni. of Nottingham) on “A Tale of Two Londons: Locating Shakespeare and Dickens in 2012”, which parallels the Shakespeare Festival and the Dickens bicentenary to explore the cultural politics of locating authors within national literary landscapes, and how this plays out within an international cultural context.
The last week or so has seen several news stories on the theme of heritage and tourism in the news that I found intriguing from the work I’ve been doing on “locating the Victorians” recently.
The first was this story about the opportunity to “live like the Crawleys” by bidding for a Downton Abbey experience involving an overnight stay and dinner at Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed; alternatively, guests could enjoy some of the “downstairs” experience with lessons on table-laying from a butler. In light of a recent resurgence of tourism oriented around the idea of ‘re-living history’ the Downton experience is doubly interesting, both taking the idea of ‘re-living history’ one step further than the usual historical tours and trails, but also re-figuring what is ‘historical’ about the history that is being re-lived: Downton is of course a fictionalised history that both plays on and departs from the popularity for adaptation of Victorian and early 20th century, so the idea of “living like the Crawleys” takes on an interesting inference in its purporting to be a ‘historical’ experience in any sense – and, in turn, raising questions about what’s ‘real’ about ‘re-living history’ anyway.
Another story this week raised a different perspective on engaging with historical spaces. The Talking Statues project has given voice to a selection of statues in London and Manchester, allowing visitors to use their smartphones to access audio recordings of the statue figures talking. It’s an interesting development in digital heritage models which have used similar initiatives to bring heritage or historical sites “to life” through audio tours and trails, which until now have typically used mobile apps or websites (see my locating Dickens post for examples). These apps and podcasts have proved successful in opening up new perspectives on places and engaging people in looking more closely at the urban landscape, but they depend upon the intention of the user to find out about the tour, download the app or audio, and then visit the sight as a planned activity. What’s interesting and different about Talking Statues is that it takes the onus off the user to know in advance about a tour or trail and instead can capture the unintentional passer-by, thereby potentially creating whole new audiences for heritage tourism (even if only on a micro-scale) who may never have thought to engage in such activities before. As with the Downton experience, though, this also raises questions about the ‘history’ that is being accessed through the (fictionalised) first-person narratives written by contemporary writers.
On a quick final note, it was good to see this news of an industrial heritage trail linking five sites across South and West Yorkshire – it’s great to see the working sites of the industrial revolution gradually gain heritage prominence next to the Downton-style houses.
This week I’ve been finishing an essay on Dickens 2012 and ‘locating the Victorians in the bicentenary year’; although I’ve written and spoken about this work quite a few times now (including an essay in this forthcoming book), this piece has given me the opportunity to focus on more detailed analysis of content included in Dickens apps, maps, podcasts and films. It’s led me to discover some great resources on the theme of Dickens and London, so I thought I’d collect these together into a blog post with a brief review of each.
Apps and audio podcasts
- The Guardian audio walks; this five-part series of walks around Dickens’s London, Rochester and Portsmouth by The Guardian are excellent: informative, engaging, and lively discussion, interspersed with readings from the text. In 2012 I tried out two of the walks – The Heart of the City and David Copperfield – and wrote about them for JVC Online.
- Dickens in Southwark; I haven’t had the chance to do these walks myself, but I’ve been greatly impressed just using the app and listening to the audio of this walk. The core content is lively and informative, while there is extra audio on the map that was developed from a creative project involving Southwark residents. The app is easily navigable, has a well-functioning map, and with a total of 25 ‘stops’ there is lots of content to explore.
- Dickens Trail, Charles Dickens Museum; this app uses Dickens’s characters as a guide to his London locations, with four themed walks following Magwitch, Lady Dedlock, the Artful Dodger, and Samuel Pickwick. The real shame of this app is that there is no audio content, only text on a map, which makes for a much less engaging experience.
- Dickens Dark London; this was one of the first Dickens apps that I came across and reviewed, a little harshly perhaps. The idea of the content is nice, with illustrations accompanying a reading of extracts from Dickens’s works, themed around his night walks, but it’s a shame there is so little free content – only one serial installment is provided and the rest are priced at £1.49 each. The best thing about this app is its map feature, which combines an 1862 map with a map of contemporary London, and allows you to scroll between each or view a composite image of the two – great for easily viewing structural changes to the city.
- Celebrating Dickens; the University of Warwick’s Dickens offering includes a wealth of material from researchers and students at the University of Warwick on many aspects of Dickens’s life and writing, and the app features a navigable map of Dickens locations not just in London but also in East Anglia, Kent and the Midlands. Highly recommended, of course!
- “The Houseless Shadow“; directed by William Raban, this is a short version of the full film installation that was commissioned by the Museum of London for their Dickens and London exhibition. The piece uses a reading from Dickens’s essay “The Night Walks” with images of the contemporary city. Raban discusses the aims behind the piece in this conversation recorded at the BFI.
- The Uncommercial Traveller; this project by the British Council created a series of theatrical audio guides to Penang, Melbourne, Singapore and Karachi. The audio aims at creating a really evocative experience of each city and makes for interesting listening even if you aren’t in the relevant city.
- Sketches by Boz: Sketching the City; another British Council project that developed written and artistic creative responses to cities around the world through a Dickensian lens
- Dickens and London film; the British Council produced a collection of teaching resources on Dickens 2012 and I particularly enjoyed this short piece on Dickens and London
Yesterday (31st March) marked the anniversary of the death of Charlotte Brontë, and it is fitting that I have just returned from a weekend exploring an oft-overlooked part of her life: Charlotte Brontë’s time in the city of Brussels. Although it is well known that two of her novels, Villette (1853) and The Professor (published 1857) are based on her time as a student and teacher in the Belgium capital, the importance of Brussels is typically given less attention other than as a topographical reference-point for her novels. In my research I’m exploring the legacy of Charlotte Brontë in Brussels over the past 150 years, and this visit was the first step in seeing the sites for myself and meeting the Brussels Brontë Group: the group’s regular events and tours bring together people of all nationalities who are united by their love of the Brontës, with a special interest in Emily and Charlotte’s time in the city. I had a wonderful time attending a lecture (more of which in the next post), having dinner with the group to talk all things Brontë and Brussels, and then going on a walking tour of Brontë locations. I also retraced the route alone, and what follows here is a photo-essay of my journey around this lesser-known “Brontë country” – if you’re unfamiliar with the Brontë story, you can start by reading more about what brought the sisters to Brussels, and how it influenced their work, here.
It was reported on BBC news this morning that the National Trust have temporarily taken over operation of the Big Brother house, and for 2 days only will be running public guided tours of the house that, for 13 years, has been home to rounds of contestants of the reality TV show.
Inevitably, this has prompted many negative reactions: how could the National Trust, guardians of Britain’s most valuable heritage sites, descend to this? Is the house of a reality TV show of inherent value or meaning worthy of the National Trust stamp of approval? Isn’t it just a shallow PR stunt designed to market the National Trust as trendy and appealing to a younger audience? Well yes, there is clearly a PR exercise at work here, but it’s one that I have little objection to, either as publicity stunt – for that in itself gets people talking about heritage and value systems, which can be no bad thing – or for the grounds on which it markets the house as being of touristic value.
Of course the issue at stake here isn’t the opening up of what is, essentially, a TV set but the fact that the National Trust is behind it. The National Trust’s website states that its core aim is to “protect historic houses, gardens, mills, coastline, forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, nature reserves, villages and pubs. Then we open them up for ever, for everyone.”
Houses, of course, reach right to the heart of the idea of English identity. From the 18th century to the present day, the country house has been situated as a key national institution and one of the central images associated with “Englishness”: evoking the power of the landed classes through an image of leisured grandeur set within carefully sculpted landscapes, whilst carefully eliding the labour and Empire required to produce and sustain that wealth, the country house neatly symbolises much of England’s history. The country house tourism that we participate in today is no new phenomenon either: the practice of visiting houses began in the late 18th century as one of the first modes of intra-national tourism and, as it grew throughout the 19th century, formed one of the key practices that helped solidify and, literally, locate an emergent sense of national identity. The continued popularity of country house tourism attests to the strength of discourses forged through this practice, the country house remaining a resonant location of cultural value, worthy of its heritage status and the national investment to protect it.
So it’s easy to see why the inclusion of the Big Brother house into this genre might cause some debate. The TV series marked the start of a reality turn in popular culture that is, by definition, both mundane and insidious in its attention to the details of the everyday lives on display. To many, it symbolises much of what is wrong with contemporary popular culture. Such a house also begs the obvious question about the appeal of visiting a house that has been displayed in such minute detail by cameras permeating every space; what is there left to see?
If houses represent the location of national culture, then the Big Brother house is arguably the most resonant site of British culture in the last ten years. When Big Brother first appeared on our TV screens 13 years ago it seemed to signal not just a new era of reality TV, but of privacy and intrusion too: “Big Brother is watching you” hit a cultural nerve, coinciding with, and perhaps at that time pre-empting, debates around an increasing surveillance culture (indeed, “Big Brother culture”) that have become particularly resonant over the last few years. While it was the TV series’ presentation of “reality” that initiated many of these debates, it is the material house itself that stands as the manifestation of these concepts, its physical structure permeated by modes of surveillance and spaces in which self-narratives – the lifeblood of reality TV – are encouraged to emerge (the “diary room”, for example). As the phase “Big Brother is watching you” also reminds us, it’s a space that invokes British cultural tradition; while the show’s derivation from 1984 remains tangential in its final formation and the idea of “Big Brother culture” was widely resonant before the TV show, it is arguably the TV series that has served to re-invoke Orwellian concepts as widely identifiable and understandable to new audiences, reinstating the text as an active part of contemporary cultural memory.
It’s worth remembering, too, that we can’t be too precious about the perceived cultural value of country house tourism. Much of the contemporary interest in national house visiting has been invigorated by TV reinterpretations of the nineteenth century that take the country house as a central symbol: from the Austen adaptations of the 1980s and ’90s to Downton Abbey in more recent years, the house has been central in the visual evocation of nineteenth-century England, and this in turn has helped foster the continued interest in National Trust and English Heritage sites. The popularity of heritage houses is as much a collision of different cultural forms and inscriptions of cultural meaning, a meeting-point of popular and traditional, literary and TV culture. So too does the Big Brother house remind us that these sites also market themselves via the commodification of visitor experience: if the Big Brother house makes quite explicit the question of “what would one gain from being in, experiencing the house for oneself?”, this question might just as easily be put to the viewing of country houses, where the idea of being a participant in history is key to the marketable appeal.
I won’t lie, reality TV isn’t my thing and I wasn’t queuing up to get tickets to the Big Brother house. But I am pleased that the National Trust have done this, for if nothing else it serves as a useful site of cultural debate for thinking about the meaning of heritage, national identity and cultural value, and reassessing the sites that remain meaningful locations of heritage today.
My visit to Liverpool this week for the Neo-Victorian Cultures conference signalled a bit of a change in direction from my usual research interests. Although I’ve long had an interest in neo-Victorian fiction and enjoy reading it in my spare time, my research has stood firmly in the Victorian period since the start of my PhD. Over the last year, however, I’ve become increasingly interested in the ways in which the Victorians are situated in contemporary culture and how these engagements with the Victorian past are put to cultural work. This stemmed, of course, from the Dickens bicentenary which I’ve written about frequently on this blog, and I’d also begun to explore the intersections of place, nation and mobility in some of the bicentenary celebrations that focused on “Dickens and London” in a couple of recent papers.
I felt, though, that it would be beneficial to put this research into a slightly different context and to consider the ways in which the issues around place and nation intersected with debates and trends in neo-Victorian culture more widely, and to think about what these cross-currents might offer both areas of the field. So my paper “Locating the Victorians: Mobility, place and the past in neo-Victorian culture” was something of an exploration in this line, testing the neo-Victorian waters to see how these conversations might take shape. While in previous work I’ve focused on the local-global iterations of Dickens and London in the 2012 context, in this paper I considered literary tourism as a negotiation between past and present, seeking to understand the ways in which it might fit within neo-Victorian frameworks of reinterpretation and rediscovery. The panel proved to be both interesting and helpful, and I was grateful to the very engaged audience who asked interesting questions about the bicentenary, different forms of exploration of Victorian places, and authenticity of experiences. I also very much enjoyed fellow panellist Ben Poore’s paper about three Victorian spaces that have been restored in recent years – and if you’re in London this week looking for something to do, consider going to the Dalston House art installation which looks like a lot of fun!
The rest of the conference was highly stimulating and enjoyable. Margaret Stetz’s keynote looked at laughter in neo-Victorian fiction, questioning when did we begin to laugh at the Victorians, and would that moment constitute the moment at which we can define “neo-Victorianism” coming into existence? Helen Davies’ keynote on sex and the neo-Victorian freak show looked at the way in which conjoined twins Chang and Eng were interpreted in their own day and retrospectively, focusing on how issues around sex and morality are handled both in Victorian discourses and in neo-Victorian reinterpretations of these.
The panel on rewriting Jane Eyre raised some interesting questions about the cultural afterlives of the Brontë’s: why always Jane Eyre, and Charlotte Brontë, as the focus of interest? Do we need to know the Brontës before we understand the fictions they inspire – how would Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea read without prior knowledge of Jane Eyre? A panel on Neo-Victorian Geographies explored the use of space in neo-Victorian fiction, film and TV, from the labyrinthine underground spaces of horror films such as Death Line and Creep (Paul Dobraszczyk), to the (overground) railways as spaces evocative of Victorian criminality (Joanne Knowles). Material culture was also well represented in a panel about authenticity and neo-Victorian fiction: Kym Brindle’s discussion of A.S. Byatt’s Possession looked at the novel’s fascination with material texts – bundles of letters, for example – as fetishized, desired objects that summon up ideas around the authenticity of the past. Joanne Ella Parsons explored the meanings of different foods in Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, taking us through discussion of oysters, chocolate and watercress to consider why food remains such an evocative symbol in the neo-Victorian novel.
The final part of the conference (for me) was the roundtable on Global NeoVictorianism with Ann Heilmann, Kate Mitchell, Rosario Arias, Monika Pietrzak-Franger and Patricia Pulham. The papers set in train some indicative ideas around the global manifestations of neo-Victorian culture: what counts as neo-Victorian fiction, and how much validity does “neo-Victorianism” have in a global context’ – should we move to think about “neo-nineteenth-centuryism”? What engagement is demonstrated with British Victorianisms in other global contexts – such as Australian writing about nineteenth-century Australia? And how do we define Victorian, let alone neo-Victorian?
Sadly I had to leave at this point in the conference, but the roundtable took me full circle to my paper and the negotiations between past-present in a local-global context that I had started to tease out, so I left with a head full of ideas for future directions. I thought the conference was an excellent forum for debate, well attended with a lively and enthusiastic audience, and I’m sure much of this was thanks to the fabulously hard-working team behind the conference, so thank you for putting on such an enjoyable few days!
I’ve been catching up on some TV this week, with two historical travel programmes that caught my eye. Firstly, there’s been a new series of BBC2’s Great British Railway Journeys, the show in which Michael Portillo set off on the train with a copy of Bradshaw’s Victorian railway guide under his arm, using the text as a lens through which to explore the railway route then and now and stopping at various sites of Victorian interest along the way. This series has been of particular interest to me as the starting point for this route was High Wycombe, a stop on from my hometown of Beaconsfield (where the station wasn’t built until 1906), and the first episode saw Portillo travel to Leamington Spa and then on to Stratford-upon-Avon, stopping along the way to visit the Leamington Pump Rooms, Tennis Court Club, and Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon (alas, no mention of one eminent Victorian’s visit to the area in 1838!).
There’s also a brand new series on BBC 2 called Map Man – in which as the website blurb says,
Modern explorer Nicholas Crane travels across eight maps that changed the face of Britain in a series of geographical challenges through some of today’s wildest landscapes, telling the story of British mapmaking from the time of Chaucer through to the current generation of cyber-mappers.
In episode 2, Nicholas Crane set off with John Ogilby’s 1675 road map, the first of its kind to trace a route as a linear journey (as it happens, I blogged about this map after seeing it at a V&A exhibition back in 2008).
Crane’s journey of the trans-Pennine pass from York to Lancaster was fascinating in revealing many changes to the landscape that have occured in the intervening years: some of the route is now the course of the major A-road, but substantially diverged for much of the way; we saw how a river had been re-routed as a result of the coming of the railway in later years; and Crane searched for telling traces of the old roads that still remain alongside muddy paths and wooded undergrowth. I’m very much looking forward to subsquent episodes, and can’t wait to see which maps have been chosen.
Watching these programmes back-to-back led me to reflect on the use of maps or guides as a basis for a tv series, which seems to have become a bit of a trend in recent years: Julia Bradbury’s Canal Walks, Wainwright’s Walks, and Portillo’s Great Continental Railway Journeys are a few other examples that come to mind, but I’m sure there have been others in a similar vein. Each of these takes a historical map or guide book and sets out to explore the route in its present form, using the map as a focal point through which to read and interpret the current landscape and open up discussion around points of similarity and change between then and now.
But why the fascination with the guide book? What is it about the old mapped route that is of such interest to us now?
On the surface, the appeal is easy to see: these routes give the perfect structure for a tv series, carving out linear yet episodic paths that develop nicely over a long series and work equally well as stand-alone episodes, bringing in multiple points of interest while maintaining a focused narrative. But there’s also something important here in having the map or guide as a locatable route which can be plotted onto the present landscape, and, vice versa, of using the guide as a means through which to read that landscape for its historical traces; there’s something in being able to directly plot past onto present, and experience space as a site of continuity with the past. And perhaps more importantly, there’s something in the process of following a mapped historical route as a mobile experience, of putting oneself into the shoes of a historical traveller in a way that seemingly validates or authenticates the journey and that seemingly brings one into closer contact with the historical site, following in the footsteps of those that have tread the same path – a point which interestingly resonates with the original use of guidebooks in the nineteenth century as a form of touristic authentification that gave security and satisfaction from the knowledge that you were following the same beaten track that every other tourist before you had trodden, seeing every important site through the interpretative lens of the guidebook.
It’s an act that resonates strongly with literary tourism, yet the guidebook/map offers a slightly different manifestation of this process, with a different set of interpretative possibilities and spatial/historical relations. There seems to be more to be said about how these journeys might allow us to re-read not just the sites described in the guidebooks for their historical resonances, but also of how the guidebooks might be re-read as texts through reference to the sites they depict. It’s a process about which I have more questions than answers at the moment, but fortuitously will have the opportunity to explore further – when I travel to Sardinia in April I’ll almost certainly be taking my 1912 Baedeker’s Southern Italy along to think more about how the guidebook-as-text might be repositioned within this set of spatial-historical-geographical relations that arise from the contemporary re-treading of its tourist tracks.